The waterfront house at 2765 Lake Drive is the ninth most valuable in Riviera Beach, its worth estimated by the county at nearly $2.2 million.
Yet, despite its lush lawn, dock and swimming pool on Singer Island alongside the Intracoastal Waterway, five bedrooms and four full baths, utility bills obtained by The Palm Beach Post indicate no one at the 5,900-square-foot property used any water the past six years.
No showering? No flushing? No dishwashing, lawn watering?
As recently as this spring, while neighboring houses paid $200 or more for water each month, homeowner Chris A. Heine paid a “standby fee” for the occupied house, built 10 years ago. The bill went from $218 in May 2011 to $35 in May 2012 and stayed low. As of May 2018, his bill, obtained through a public information request, was $53.80, still reflecting zero water use.
City officials say this is one mystery they’ve now solved and corrected. But they also concede it reflects a citywide problem waiting for action.
A meter issue or something else?
Prompted by a citizen email, a city utility department inspector determined the home’s water meter was clogged by a buildup of minerals. The city now has installed a new one.
But because the city found no evidence the homeowner circumvented the meter, the city won’t bill Heine for years of free water, said Utility Executive Director Willie Horton, who doubles as interim assistant city manager.
“If it’s a bad meter and we don’t discover it for some time, that’s on us,” Horton said. “We don’t want to make an inaccurate guestimate. We just start from that point forward.”
Heine, a real estate developer, said through attorney Maureen DeAngles that he paid what the city billed him.
An employee who handles bills for him agreed: “All I know is, I pay the bills they send me every month,” said Dillon Douglas, who returned a message on Heine’s behalf. “They send them, we write the check and send them back.”
Some are skeptical about the city’s explanation for Heine’s low meter reading.
“It’s very, very rare for a meter to become clogged,” said Bevin Beaudet, former director of the county’s much larger water utility and former national chairman of the American Waterworks Association.
Horton, hired Oct. 7 to put the utility back on track, offered multiple explanations why the abrupt change in Heine’s meter readings went undetected for six years.
“He could be drawing water out of the bay,” Horton said. “People do that throughout Florida.”
When it was noted that “the bay,” in this case is salt water, around the corner from the Lake Worth Inlet and Atlantic Ocean, he said that was just what homeowners do at some locations, not necessarily Heine.
Heine offered yet another explanation: The property has a well.
That wouldn’t account for how the property had normal bills for its first four years and then consumption plunged to zero, however. And neither the city nor the county health department, which regulates wells, could find a record of a well at the house.
Heine’s response, through his attorney: It’s an old well that was there before he built the house. The health department could not confirm that, either, as their records only go back to 2003, spokesman Timothy O’Connor said.
Malfunctioning meters magnifying
News of the mansion’s free water comes at a time when the city is under fire for multiple accounts of wasting money, from overpaying on insurance to over-spending on travel. The Palm Beach Post reported last month that from 2014 to 2017, the city paid for health coverage for at least 77 former or ineligible employees, including a dead one, and 119 ex-employee family members, in some cases for as long as four years after the employee left the city.
While that let $1.1 million pour through the cracks, the water utility has another gusher on its hands. City officials acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of water the city pays to treat and distribute is flowing out unbilled. Current and former officials say 20 percent of the city’s water vanishes, whether through theft, leakage or faulty meters. That’s double what’s normal, experts say.
“We’ve had a report over last few months of 800 meters that have had some malfunction, clogging or breaking or what have you,” utility director Horton said.
The city recently authorized spending to replace all 13,500 of its meters, but as of now doesn’t have a computerized system to set off alerts that might indicate malfunctioning or tampering with meters and the work to install new meters and metering system hasn’t started.
The meter issue first came to the city council’s attention two or more years ago but so far remains unfixed, delayed by slow contracting, Hurricane Irma, departure of a purchasing director, the death of a key employee (the one who benefited from post-death health insurance coverage) and the city’s slowness in staffing up on professional engineers, not to mention that Riviera Beach hasn’t had a permanent administrative leader in place since council members voted to fire City Manager Jonathan Evans last September. (The council agreed this week to a $190,000 settlement with Evans that stated it had no evidence he committed any wrongdoing and that termed his departure a matter of mutual consent.)
“Eight-hundred meters, in a utility of that size, should be an indicator the meters are too old and need to be replaced,” Beaudet said.
Beaudet consulted for Riviera Beach for 11 months, leaving in May 2017. “They need to have a replacement program for all their meters,” he said.
The good news, said Horton: With Heine’s new meter attached, readings indicate water use much higher than previously registered, so residents can at least be more assured the city is collecting its due.
Follow Tony Doris on Twitter at @TonyDorisPBP.